WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas

(AP Photo/Marco Ugarte)

14 Jul 2017 | Joint Statement

Spyware attacks against outspoken critics of the government in Mexico

A serious act of intimidation in the midst of a wave of violence against journalists and human rights defenders

The undersigned international human rights organizations express our profound concern and outrage for the spyware attacks against members of Mexican civil society, journalists, political opposition parties, and representatives of international organizations who have criticized the current administration. These cases of spying must be investigated in a serious and transparent manner, taking into account the demand to create an independent panel of international experts to do so.

Investigations carried out by Citizen Lab, Article 19, R3D and SociaITIC, and published by The New York Times, revealed that there are several cases involving the use of a software called Pegasus for surveillance and spying. This software is sold exclusively to governments on the condition that it be used only to investigate suspected criminals and terrorists. The victims of these spyware attacks include journalists, human rights defenders, and other activists who have published information on corruption, irregular public contracts, public health decisions, and serious human rights violations that have occurred during Mexico’s current administration and under President Enrique Peña Nieto’s term as governor of the State of Mexico. Political opposition parties have also been targeted.

According to findings made public on July 10, members of the Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts (Grupo Interdisciplinario de Expertos Independientes)—formed by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to provide technical assistance to the Mexican government in the investigation of the enforced disappearance of 43 students in Guerrero—were also subject to this form of spying. The spyware infiltrates cell phones via a text message containing a malicious link, which once accessed, allows perpetrators to monitor all cell phone activity, including emails, encrypted messages, calls, the camera, and microphone.

These spyware attacks have come to light in the context of one of the most violent moments for journalists and human rights defenders in Mexico, with at least seven journalists and six human rights defenders killed in the country so far this year. Impunity for these cases continues to be the norm, and the government’s actions have not been able to guarantee justice or to sanction those who attack outspoken critics of the government and its public officials.

The Mexican government’s response to the allegations of spying has not been sufficient and seems to wager that the scandal will blow over. The federal Attorney General’s Office (Procuraduría General de la República) and its Special Prosecutor for Crimes against Freedom of Expression (Fiscalía Especial para la Atención de Delitos Cometidos contra la Libertad de Expresión, FEADLE), have announced that they have opened an investigation into the surveillance and have solicited the support of the United Nations and the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). However, the terms under which this cooperation is being requested are not transparent, and in the case of the United States, the U.S. ambassador to Mexico has said that the support has not been officially requested.

The undersigned organizations echo the demands of Mexican civil society and some members of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to create an independent panel of international experts, which, unlike national authorities, could carry out an investigation that leads to serious and credible results for the victims of spying and for Mexican society in general. Likewise, we call upon the Mexican government to release the contracts and documents related to the acquisition and use of the spying software.

Amnesty International

Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL)

Centro de Estudios de Derecho, Justicia y Sociedad (Dejusticia)

Centro de Estudios Legales y Sociales (CELS)

Conectas Direitos Humanos

Due Process of Law Foundation (DPLF)

JASS (Just Associates)

Latin America Working Group Education Fund (LAWGEF)

Open Society Justice Initiative (OSJI)

Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights

Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA)